If I had to pick only one points or miles program to earn points for free travel it would be Chase Ultimate Rewards points.
Why I Love Chase Ultimate Rewards
There are a few reasons I love Chase Ultimate Rewards points so much:
1) Chase Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred to a wide variety of frequent flyer and hotel loyalty programs.
Chase Ultimate Rewards points can be directly or indirectly transferred to frequent flyer or hotel loyalty programs: United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, Singapore Airlines, Korean Air, Southwest, Air France/KLM Flying Blue, Hyatt, Marriott, IHG Rewards Club, Ritz Carlton. (Here is a guide on how to transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to a travel partner.)
While American Express Membership Rewards and Starpoints have a lot of transfer partners I prefer the ones that Ultimate Rewards has.
For me, the best use of Ultimate Rewards is Hyatt, United Airlines and Singapore Airlines. I have not used my Ultimate Rewards points for Hyatt yet but have booked several first class and business class awards with United and an award in Singapore Suites.
2) Ultimate Rewards are very easy to earn.
There are many ways to earn Ultimate Rewards points such as online shopping, applying for credit cards, making referrals and every day spending. Chase Ultimate Rewards cards are not only great for the initial sign up bonus but are great for everyday spending since they offer extra points for certain categories. One can even earn sign up bonuses over and over again by reapplying for the same card approximately every two years (this is called churning). There are not as many ways to earn Membership Rewards and Starpoints.
How I Keep Earning Ultimate Rewards
Applying for Every Credit Card that Earns Ultimate Rewards Points
There are several credit cards offered by Chase that earn Ultimate Rewards points. Currently, these credit cards include two personal cards (Chase Freedom, Chase Sapphire Preferred) and two business cards (Ink Plus and Ink Cash). These cards give a sign up bonus for signing up for the card and spending a certain amount in the first three months. I have had every one of these cards except the Ink Cash which I plan to eventually apply for. I also have two cards that have been discontinued (the Chase Sapphire and the Ink Classic) so I have earned the sign up bonus on those as well.
Of course, I don’t apply for all these credit cards at once. I only apply for one Chase card at a time and I wait about 3 months between applications (unless a limited time high bonus comes along).
Making Sure I Apply When the Sign Up Bonus is Higher than Usual
One strategy I use when applying for credit cards is to wait till the sign up bonus is higher than normal. That way I earn more points for applying for credit cards. For example the Ink Plus sign up bonus is 50,000 on chase.com but once a year Chase raises it to 60,000 for a limited time.
Taking Advantage of Category Bonuses
All the Chase credit cards that earn Ultimate Rewards points offer good category bonuses.
The Ink cards earn 5X points per $1 at office supply stores and on cell phone, landline, internet and cable TV services. I pay my cell phone, internet and cable bills with an Ink card on autopay so I earn over 12,000 Ultimate Rewards points a year just for paying those bills. Occasionally I will also purchase gift cards at office supply stores (more on that later).
The Chase Sapphire Preferred card earns 2X points per $1 on travel and dining so I make sure to use it whenever I spend money in those categories.
Taking Advantage of Chase’s Refer a Friend Program
Chase periodically offers the opportunity to earn points for referring its credit cards through chasereferafriend.com. Basically the way Chase Refer a Friend works is that if you send a referral link to a friend (or family member) and they apply and are approved for that card you can earn 5,000 or 10,000 points. You can make referrals for up to 10 people and earn a maximum of 50,000 bonus points per calendar year.
I use Chase Refer a Friend to earn points when a close family member applies for a Chase card and we try to time our applications to take advantage of the referral bonus. Here is a list of current Chase Refer-a-Friend opportunities.
Unlike other flexible points programs, Chase has an online shopping portal (Shop through Chase) meaning you can earn Ultimate Reward points for online shopping which most people do anyway. I used to earn Ultimate Rewards points for booking hotels through hotels.com but unfortunately this is no longer an option.
I don’t do a huge amount of manufactured spend but I like to take advantage of deals on gift cards at office supply stores. Staples periodically offers a rebate for purchasing Visa or Mastercard gift cards which rebate is larger than the fees incurred for purchasing gift cards.
Churning Credit Cards
As I mentioned above a great feature of the Ultimate Rewards cards is that you can apply for and earn the sign up bonus for the same card every 24 months after the date you receive the bonus (this is specified in the offer terms when applying for a credit card).
Chase can shut you down for making it too obvious that you are opening and closing credit cards just for the sign up bonus so I am keeping two cards always open and don’t plan to churn them. I plan to churn all Chase cards that earn Ultimate Rewards except the Ink Classic (which is no longer offered) and Chase Freedom. They both have no annual fee so I can keep them forever. I plan to keep churning the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Ink Plus and Ink Cash and earning the bonus repeatedly as long as Chase allows me to do so.
(Update: Starting May, 2015, Chase has a new rule of not approving Chase credit card applications for people that have signed up for 5 new credit cards from any bank (might count cards someone is an authorized user on) in the past 24 months. This rule is currently in place only when applying for cards that earn Ultimate Rewards like the Chase Freedom and Chase Sapphire Preferred. See this post for more information on the Chase 5/24 rule.)
Using these methods I have earned tons of Ultimate Rewards points and I hope I can continue to do so.